Men and women armed with clipboards and pens have been common sights at grocery stores, libraries, farmers' markets and shopping centers in Baltimore County, seeking signatures on petitions to overturn zoning decisions through a voter referendum.
But many were not passionate local activists — they were paid by petition companies based in other states, hired by firms with ties to developers with interests in the zoning decisions. Some were accused by residents of lying to gain a petition signature. In one case, petition workers had a physical altercation outside the Cockeysville Library.
"It was sort of the Wild West out there," said Tim Maloney, a lawyer who represents a company trying to redevelop the Middle River Depot, one of the sites involved in the zoning fight. His firm opposes the referendum effort.
Paid signature-gathering is common in ballot initiatives around the country. Yet the practice is being debated in Maryland, where last year voters challenged three laws through statewide referendum. Some state lawmakers now want to tighten restrictions on the petition management companies, including a possible ban on paying workers for each signature they gather.
In Annapolis, Del. Eric Luedtke, a Democrat from Montgomery County, said he would propose outlawing "bounty systems" that pay circulators for collecting signatures. He noted that such payments are illegal in voter registration drives.
The Baltimore County petition drive centered on the county's comprehensive zoning review. A coalition of development firms didn't like the results approved by the County Council in August 2012, and launched the drive to overturn zoning decisions in two districts.
The county Board of Elections could decide as early as next week whether to allow the issue to be placed on the 2014 ballot.
Meanwhile, another referendum related to the Middle River Depot has emerged. Paid petition circulators are seeking signatures for that drive as well.
Detractors allege petition companies can be aggressive, misleading and opportunistic. But referendum supporters say standards are so high to put an issue on the ballot, it's practically impossible without professional help.
"The citizens of Baltimore County should be pleased that there are business people willing to spend the money to bring this issue to the ballot," said Stuart Kaplow, a lawyer representing the Committee for Zoning Integrity, one of two political committees formed to promote the effort. "The only way to do it is this massive effort, and unfortunately, it costs money to be able to exercise our democratic right to put something on the ballot."
No one has successfully brought a local law to referendum in recent memory in Baltimore County. Petitioners are required to gather signatures equal to least 10 percent of the number of people who voted for governor in the last election.
That has proved a tough goal. In 2011, residents opposed to council redistricting failed to gather enough signatures for a county referendum. Last year, opponents of a bill to protect transgender people from discrimination also fell short of getting enough signatures.
But with the help of hired petition management companies, promoters of the zoning referendum gathered more than 170,000 signatures.
The drive has involved a battle between developers, some with competing interests.
The proposed referendum now before the Board of Elections has been funded by firms with ties to David S. Brown Enterprises and The Cordish Cos., as well as the owners of Green Spring Station and Garrison Forest Plaza shopping centers. That coalition hired National Ballot Access, a Georgia company, to collect signatures.
Other developers, including Greenberg Gibbons and Middle River Station LLC, are fighting the referendum because they would benefit from the council's zoning decisions. Greenberg Gibbons, which wants to build a project called Foundry Row at the former Solo Cup site on Reisterstown Road, hired Petition Partners, an Arizona company, to counteract the signature collectors.
Brian Gibbons, chairman and CEO of Greenberg Gibbons, said his company hired the firm to dispel misinformation from his opposition.
"We knew they were purposely misleading people," he said.
According to Baltimore County Police, the two sides clashed on an October afternoon in Cockeysville. A 55-year-old woman was collecting signatures outside the library when three men in Halloween masks arrived to protest her effort. It wasn't long until the two sides got physical. Library patrons had to pull them apart and called police, according to the police report.
No one was charged, a police spokeswoman said. All of those involved — the woman and the masked men — were hired by the petition companies. The police report indicates one of the workers told officers that they are contacted by recruiters by phone, "and they give their dates as to when they can assist with whatever campaign is active," the report said.